A Review of Oishik Sircar’s Violent Modernities: Cultural Lives of Law in New India

[Over the past couple of months, we have been running a book discussion on Oishik Sircar’s “Violent Modernities: Cultural Lives of Law in New India”. This is the final review by Parthasarathi Muthukkaruppan. The introductory post by Adil Hasan Khan can be found here and the first review in the series by Siddharth Narrain can be found here.]

If one were to initiate a genuinely dialectical thinking on violence and the law, perhaps the effort should begin from recognizing that both the violence and the law are to be configured not as binary opposites exclusive of each other, but as an antagonistic relation in which each pole of the antagonism is inherent to its opposite. Written in 1921 and widely debated in the context of left-wing violence against the liberal state of Germany in the 1960s, Walter Benjamin’s Critique of Violence poses a formidable challenge to the liberal conceptions of law and violence. Benjamin argued that the law in its ideological form could conceal its violent foundations/histories and appear as if it is on the opposite pole of violence. He highlighted the habitation of mythic or fate like violence in the legal order (rechtsgewalt).  For Benjamin, violence and power are inseparable; the term Gewalt used by Benjamin for violence indeed signifies both violence and power. Benjamin’s critique of Weimer republic and the subsequent restaging of the problematic of violence of law in the works of Jacques Derrida, Giorgio Agamben and many others, perhaps transformed our way of thinking about law and violence. One may find much more complex theoretical accounts of this particular problematic, both in critical legal theories and in continental philosophy. However, it is always the particular historical and the anthropological accounts of this problematic, that bring a new life, add flesh and blood and illuminate our proximate experiences, more so in the case of contemporary India.

Oishik Sircar’s book Violent Modernities navigates in the same problematic terrain by bringing together violence and law in a dialectical way to think through the violence of modern law in India which has the legacies of colonialism, and the contractual democracy that bears liberal concepts of rights and liberty. In an interesting way, law is dragged out of the court room and made to face the popular, the political resistance and the cries of justice, whenever the discussion on law does not simply stay within the domain of legal texts, precedents and specific clauses which themselves are dictated by the law itself, and enters the realm of the cultural. Curating a range of cultural-political materials from popular Hindi cinema to incendiary pamphlets of the Hindutva, Sircar articulates a critique of modern law and its connivance in forms of violence against the religious, sexual and other forms of minors within the republic of India. The methods carefully deployed in Violent Modernities are that of critically reading the cultural materials, narrative mechanisms and significations, instead of treating the materials as data of evidence or proof. In that specific sense, the book resonates more of a critical humanistic work despite the details of immense legal and contemporary historical data.

One of the things that I have enjoyed and learned from the book is that Sircar’s work brilliantly brings together a range of cutting-edge theoretical conversations on law, to shed light on our contemporary cultural-governmental landscape. The aim of the book seems to be more of engaging the difficulty and thinking through complexity itself, rather than arriving at a ‘successful’ explanatory schema. This aspect of the book, moving back and forth from a subject position of scholar/activist in the field of legal/cultural history to a subject position of progressive experiential political subject with the consciousness and limitations of its own history makes the work more interesting and thoughtful in terms of the experimenting with the formal structure and style of the work. Since Law and Other Things wants this review to be a beginning of a discussion, I would refashion the idea of review to not aim a comprehensive review of the work. Instead, I will attempt to limit myself to reflect on the theoretical framings of the work and to accommodate a few queries and provocations, in order to inaugurate a subsequent response from the author, rather than conclusively registering any judgement.

The central concern of the book remains justice and emancipation. Sircar elaborates on the legal-political form that we inhabit today in the name of democracy and its historically constituted paradoxical existence. He brings together enormous examples of judicial decisions, that can be called the travesty of justice, to reiterate the dark state of affairs. This scene of juridico-legal subjection is presented and complemented with an exploration of the theoretical/conceptual limitedness of liberalism. Drawing from the early works of Wendy Brown, Sircar points to the historical paradox inherent to the liberal constitution and its abstract codification of rights of the citizens-subjects. In this regard, I have three points to present. Firstly, while much of Sircar’s work focuses on the ‘New India’, it also stages an unsympathetic critical commentary on the foundations of constitutional justice (elaborated through the irony of Manto and several other instances), almost like the description of trauma associated with the Freudian primal scene. What if one were to look at the constitution not as our final destination but beginning of our itinerary towards the future? Is it not possible to re-signify the constitution and explore the insurrectionary duties of people? The split between the letter of law and the inequality and social disregard for the law was well articulated by the draft committee chairperson as “entering into a life of contradiction”.  

Secondly, I am wondering, in this context, is Wendy Brown’s text on rights is amenable to a reading where varied historical contexts are closely paid attention to chart out the unfolding of liberal rights and modernity. I think an engagement with the enormous body of work on colonial modernity and its historical unfolding would have enriched the discussion on the question of rights in modernity. Sircar rather goes along with certain post-colonial rhetoric. This is crucial in the sense that it is modernity and liberalism that play a radical role in introducing a new language of rights among the most oppressed classes since the mid-19th century in various parts of India. The founding moment of the constitution cannot be separated from its law destroying violence, unleashed on the prior existed native legal structures affirmed by colonialism that are primitive and lethal, symbolized let us say by the burnings of the manusmriti, or a constant juxtaposition of the constitution and the manusmriti in subaltern publics. Thirdly, Sircar’s invocation of post-colonial theory/studies in the re-imagination of emancipation seems to suggest an alterity to modernity, a space outside the reach of the history. While it is useful to think through this question rather than taking modernity for granted, I am wondering how is it possible to seamlessly suture together two different trajectories of critiques on liberalism: postcolonialism that frames the politics at the level of nations, and on the other hand, Sircars’ entire book that consists of politics of the conflict among the classes within the nation (broad sense to include divisions based on religion, sexuality and gender for example ). It is always, I believe, useful to sustain the difference among the critiques of liberalism emerging from the spectrum of political positions (for example, Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmidt, or Ambedkar and Gandhi) and those positions continue to hold irreconcilable contradictions both at the level of conceptual thinking and in the effective domain of politics. This becomes crucial in a historical context, where post-colonial theory occludes a primary social contradiction like caste within the nation, by a conspicuous disavowal of caste. This is in spite of the fact that caste is one of the central kernels with which colonial knowledge could set apart Indian society outside the progress of history. Tellingly, Sircar’s book does not have anything to say about caste, either theoretically or personally. It is post-colonialism, in my view, that facilitates to talk about violence or modernity without engaging caste in India.

While Violent Modernities brings a rich account of the relationship between law and violence in Indian modernity, it is worth looking at the way modernity has been signified in the work. Much of Sircar’s understanding of Indian modernity seems to me informed by certain post-colonial thinking which conceives modernity as nothing but a form of destructive violence. While the post-colonial suspicion on the promise of modernity and its violent manifestations are well taken, I do think that modernity in India is also about how the subaltern populations are able to mobilize the sources of modernity against both, the colonial and the national bourgeoisie, at different sites of protest through a series of negotiations and at times insurrections. In this sense, modernity has historically conditioned and unintentionally inaugurated an unprecedented possibility of subaltern politics against the power in the realms of social, religious, and also in popular electoral politics. My point here is to say that the violence of modernity is a much more complex process, and the violence that modernity unleashed on the traditional structures of power relations ought to be acknowledged. This is not to deny the reproduction of old hierarchies in the new form, but to appreciate the emergence of a new language of recognition and naming of the social hierarchy and violence as such which is distinctly modern. This dialectical understanding of modernity is possible only by recognizing the productive possibilities of violence (something that Hannah Arendt denies to violence in her critique of Fanon’s call for anti-colonial violence) as a historical force by moving beyond the blanket opposition to violence often gestured by liberal thinking. Afterall a critique of violence entails a fundamental act of critical separation: discrimination and classification to begin with. When we think of violence as a motor of history, similar to what one finds in Marxist thought, perhaps we do recognize the need to think about the forms of violence and to explore the varied forms of violence that modernity inaugurates. This comes with the recognition of the fact that they all do not necessarily move unidirectionally.

Sircar’s historicizing of the neoliberal Hindutva regime, where law, religious majoritarianism, individualism, governance and private interests coalesce, is the most important part of the work. He argues that the law in the neoliberal age is nothing short of an instrument of governance in the hands of modern state machine. Sircar has argued that in the post-colonial societies, particularly in India, certain governmental rationality continues to fashion both bodies and minds of populations by way of taking care of selves. In this illuminating account, on the one hand you find that there is systematically cultivated faith and investment in the neoliberal state machinery, law, secular ideology and so on. On the other hand, the whole infrastructure produces a possibility of politics that does not question the authority of the neoliberal state or its ally, the Hindutva ideology. Sircar traces these developments at the sites of politics such as queer politics, child rights, cultural politics of cinema, etc. He reflects on those histories to show the way a certain consensus of politics is produced, and what radical politics can learn from those experiences/failures, both at the level of individual activist intellectuals and that of collective radical movements.

There have been several transformations and ruptures that the book traces between the post-colonial India and the post-liberalisation India, including the prominence of market and privatization of emancipation, so on. This clearly indicates the shifts that have taken place since early 1990s India. Despite all those ruptures, it seems to me that the book treats the ideological operations of neoliberal rationality as another advanced version of liberalism. Perhaps it could be useful to underscore the ways in which classical liberalism could be distinct from the contemporary neoliberal rationality (I am thinking of Wendy Brown’s recent works). This becomes crucial, insofar as there is a need to take stock of the ideological infrastructures of the Nehruvian developmental state that continued to exist for four decades, and its subsequent crisis with the arrival of the unfettered market and capitalism. Further, it seems to me that the book traces certain developmentalism and secular ideology in the contemporary India. Are they the vestiges from the pre-liberalized Indian state?


Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Benj

amin, Walter.  1986. “Critique of Violence”. In Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Peter Demetz (ed.). New York: Schocken Books.

Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brown, Wendy. 2015.Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution. New York, Zone Books.

Parthasarathi Muthukkaruppan is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad.

This piece is edited by Sukrut Khandekar and is published by Avani Vijay from the Editorial team.

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